Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
John le Carré's Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is not only a good example of the spy novel genre, but a fine piece of seventies British literature per se. Therefore I was most surprised when I learned back in 2011 that it was to be made as a film. Could the complexities and subtleties of this cerebral and deliberately slowly paced book be adequately brought to the big screen, by today’s studio system? Could it compete with the previous BBC television adaptation starring Alec Guiness that was made in 1979? Thankfully, director Thomas Alfredson and Working Title films have successfully managed to distil the complex plot into the film’s 127-minute running time. Furthermore, the ensemble cast have a quality script to work with and the entire production benefits from the flair of a quality European director who brings an interesting outsiders dynamic to this very British tale.
In October 1973, the head of British Intelligence, Control (Sir John Hurt), resigns after an operation in Budapest, Hungary goes seriously wrong. It transpires that Control believed one of four senior figures in the service was in fact a Russian Agent. The Hungary operation was an attempt to identify which of them was the mole. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who had been forced into retirement by the departure of Control and changes within the corridors of power, is returned to office and tasked with the investigation into the alleged spy and preventing a major scandal. Rogue Agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) has evidence to suggest that the claims are true. Smiley also considers that the failure of the Hungary operation and the continuing success of Operation Witchcraft, which appears to be yielding significant Soviet Intelligence, may be linked. As smiley digs deeper into the affair he finds that much within British Intelligence is not what it seems.
Modern mainstream cinema is fast, frenetic and often fun. Yet it can also be bombastic, self-indulgent and lacking in depth. Although the technical aspects of film making is continuously advancing, I often feel that art of writing a tight, engaging and credible screenplay is in decline. Plot detail, character development and credible dialogue is frequently sidelined so that a narrative can be expedited. Fortunately, that is not the case with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The skilful screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan credits the audience with the necessary intelligence to keep up with the plot. The viewer has to be attentive to the dialogue, connect the dots myself and do a degree of thinking. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also requires an overview of the political status quo of the Cold War. However, those who engage with the ongoing story are rewarded with a high-quality, narrative driven film. It’s been a while since my brain was given such quality fodder as this.
Purists will be happy to know that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has not made any major plot alterations to their beloved source text. There have been some reordering of events for cinematic effect but by and large the story remains intact and true to the source text. Performances are outstanding and Gary Oldman makes the iconic role of George Smiley his own within minutes of being on screen. The look and feel of the time is suitably captured, especially the grimy down at heel world of the intelligence community. This is not the faux, stylised depiction of the era you’ve seen on television shows which still strive to make this decade chic in some fashion. It is ironic that such a quintessentially British product has been successfully brought to the screen, by Swedish director Alfredson. His Scandinavian sense of style and clinical attention to detail, previously shown in Let the Right One In, is ideal in realising this sort of period production.
I could extol the merits of many aspects of this film, such as the cinematography, soundtrack, production design and editing. But frankly it is much better for potential viewers to discover these things for themselves without any advance notification. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was rather arbitrarily and obviously labelled "old school" by some film critics upon its theatrical release. It is not. It is simply a succinct reminder of how quality cinema should be made. If you start with a good story, that is written well then you have a solid foundation for a good movie. That is as pertinent now as it was when film making was in its infancy. If you like strong stories and quality performances that play out over a measured running time, then Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will be of interest to you. If you do not like having to think of yourself, listening or paying attention and prefer style over substance, then you may want to look for entertainment elsewhere.